March 27, 2008KR BlogReadingWriting

More about Intentions Intending

Inspired by Reginald Shepherd’s excellent article (which Heather Christie refers to in her March 21st post) on intentionality, I shall tell a brief story from my childhood in a small town in southern Indiana. My father took me to get my first library card when I was quite young, and it was at some point later that I walked into the library and started wondering about how many of those books sit on their shelves year after year without being picked up, much less read. Further, I wondered how many of those books might sit all over the world, every copy in its place on a shelf or in an attic, not being read year after year. It is entirely possible that all copies of some books sit for years or decades or centuries never being touched and much less read, all those printed pages remaining closed in the dark for years on end. It further occurred to me that if this were the case for a given book, there is a very real sense in which that text ceases to exist until someone picks it up again to read. I do not doubt that many other children thought much the same over the vast array of books their hometown libraries held.

Now, I was a rather dull child, and I had no way of knowing that what I thought, similar to what many other children no doubt thought, was the sort of thing pondered and to be to further thought by such figures as Hans-Georg Gadamer (Truth and Method) and J. Hillis Miller (Speech Acts in Literature), that part of the actions of thought that make a text real are those of the reader, not the author alone. One could even say that readerly intention works with authorial intention to make a text what it is. In fact, I shall do just this.

After all, there are many intentions at work in the creation of any text, for as Reginald Shepherd points out, language has a kind of intentionality all its own, shaped as it is by its circulation among many intending thinkers through centuries and millennia of work as well as play, as each intending consciousness has largely been formed by the language that it plays and that plays each thinking thing into being more than any res cogitans that fantasizes transparency to itself. Intentionality, however, is a rather funny thing. What, for example, is my intention in this present piece? Certainly, I want to make some sense out of this business of intention. Certainly, I want to ally myself with certain views without necessarily reducing my views to those of others. Certainly, I want to distance myself from views with which I disagree. I also want to write in a way that means more than what I say at any moment in explicit terms. In this latter intention, I hardly need worry since any language act always means more than my explicit intention can account for at any given time. At any time, the language that we use functions in excess of anything we intend, and it’s a good thing too; if total control were possible, our language acts could never be anything more than trivial. To say this is not to say that the meanings of our language acts are random–far from it–but rather that even our most controlled of statements go on meaning long after the utterer (or outerer) has ceased to mean or be; one reason that documents from the past are precious is that they can disclose things even their utterers did not explicitly know.

But what is intention exactly? The explicit thoughts I’m having at any given time as I’m writing something down? (As I write these sentences, I’m certainly having thoughts that I think are meaningful, but I’m also counting on readers to understand explicitly things that at any given moment I might only intuit at best. And besides, I’m thinking many things as I write these words, only some of which are clear to me. As I say to my students again and again, echoing any number of others, writing is a process of discovery; often I don’t know what I have to say until I’ve said it, and once I’ve said it I find that there is more to say than ever I possibly could, however true every word might be.) Is intention only the thoughts I most explicitly have as I write? (But intuition plays a large and lusty role in the humanities and sciences as well.) Is intention what I’m thinking throughout the whole process of writing this piece down? (Well, I’ve already left this site once and then come back to continue this essay, and to tell you the truth, the best reminder that I have right now of what my thoughts have been are the same words of this post that are available to you, dear reader. And as every good reader knows, if you want to know what I’m intending, the best index is the text that I’ve produced.

But I shall leap off from there, leaving my previous parenthetical open. It’s not that this complex phenomenon we call intentionality does not exist or count, but rather that: 1) intention is very difficult to pin down–which I suspect is why some readers attempt an end run around the difficult task of negotiating a text’s multiple implications by stating something like, But here is clearly what Shakespeare intends; and 2) language always functions in excess of any utterer’s explicit intentions at any given moment of composition. Certainly I’ve found this out in my own small way in reading reviews of my own poems. I’ve been blessed to have some quite brilliant people write about my work, and I continue to be astonished by how much more they seem to know about my poems than I. Not only have I learned some things I did not know before in reading these reviews, I’ve become convinced of the truth of understanding my own poems in terms I had not considered before.

Human consciousness is inherently dynamic–which is one reason an attempt to make a mind fix on a system of enclosure is madness and a cause of more madness still. (The kinds of apophatic meditation that seek to free the mind of conceptual work are quite the opposite of such enclosure.) We find ourselves always outside of whatever framework we need to work with and intend. It is by following our minds’ and languages’ unexpected implications, in excess of what we can explicitly intend, that new discoveries are made. Once the discoveries occur, we come to intend them later. It may be that intention is often what occurs only after the utterance is made. But this is subject matter for another post.